Longstreet sits alone in the dawn, smelling rain. Lee appears, looking majestic in the mist, a ghostly presence. As they ride together, Longstreet tells Lee that he has scouted the terrain and knows a promising route to the south. But Lee points up the slope; the enemy is there, and that’s where they will strike. He fixes Longstreet with a stare, and Longstreet draws back timidly.
As before, the smell of rain suggests impending disaster. Everything about Lee’s demeanor continues to silence a doubtful Longstreet on the morning of the last day of battle.
Lee explains his plan to split the Union line, with Longstreet leading the charge. Longstreet asks to speak. He tells Lee that his two divisions, Hood and McLaws, lost half their strength the day before. How can they expect to succeed in attacking the same high ground they failed to gain yesterday—with far fewer men and officers? He tells Lee plainly, “It is my considered opinion that a frontal assault here would be a disaster.”
Longstreet finally speaks his mind plainly to Lee, despite feeling cowed by him, explaining that his men simply don’t have the resources to accomplish what Lee asks.
Longstreet fears hurting Lee, but presses on, asking if he has ever seen a worse position. The line is spread too thin to coordinate an attack against the entrenched Union, and they cannot be as easily reinforced. But Lee insists that the Union line will break. Longstreet sees Lee’s weariness and feels a surge of affection, but he also feels a growing despair.
Despite having no logical reason to believe that an attack will work, Lee is convinced that they will be successful in breaching the Union line. Longstreet’s love for his exhausted leader has not faded, but he has no hope.
Meade moves earlier than expected, engaging Ewell. Lee and Longstreet move toward the front, met by the soldiers’ cheerful morale. At last Lee assigns Pickett’s, Heth’s, and Pender’s divisions to Longstreet and explains the objectives. After massed artillery fire, Longstreet’s men will head for a clump of trees in the center of the Union line. Longstreet asks why the attack cannot be given to Hill instead, but Lee is insistent; it must be led by Longstreet.
Morale continues to be hauntingly cheerful, in contrast to Longstreet’s expectations for the battle to come. Lee continues to put his trust in Longstreet alone, despite Longstreet’s expressed reluctance.
Longstreet struggles to meet Lee’s eyes, thinking of him as “more than father of the army, symbol of war.” He tells Lee again that he believes the attack will fail, that no fifteen thousand men could ever take that hill. Lee raises a hand angrily, but Longstreet continues inexorably, pointing out that the men will be forced to cover more than a mile’s distance under fire of Union artillery. Lee says, “That’s enough,” and turns away for a moment. Longstreet momentarily thinks Lee might relieve him of leadership but realizes Lee will rely on no one else; it’s as if it has all been fated.
Longstreet presses on with his argument, even though Lee seems more like a godlike figure than ever. Lee is angry to be contradicted, but it isn’t enough to change his mind; he trusts no one else to carry out his vision.
Lee returns and calmly asks Longstreet if he has any questions, reminding him that everyone has to do his duty. He goes over the battle plan again, confident that because of the strength of his flanks, Meade must have left the center of his line in a weaker state. He radiates confidence in Longstreet, who has little to say. Longstreet rides off with trembling hands, determined that no one will know his doubts. He gives the orders to his officers, including Pickett, who whoops with joy. As they look at the Union line, Longstreet tells his officers, “Gentlemen, the fate of your country rests on this attack.”
Lee ultimately demands obedience in spite of doubts, and he trusts Longstreet to fulfill the duty that’s expected of him. Indeed, Longstreet muffles his doubts and exhorts his men as best he can, conducting himself as honorably as possible under the circumstances.
Longstreet pictures the charge. The troops will have to walk more than a mile under fire; mathematically, there will not be many left by the time they reach the Union wall. The only hope is that Confederate artillery will break up Union defenses; and with Hancock on the hill, he knows the Yankees will not retreat. He figures they will suffer 50 percent casualties. As a quietness settles over the field, Lee remarks that all is in the hands of God now. Longstreet thinks, “It isn’t God that is sending those men up that hill.” But he says nothing.
The prospects for the Confederates are truly bleak. Longstreet’s thought has a twofold implication: on one hand, it’s Lee, not God, who has made the choice to send the men on an ill-fated charge; at the same time, the godlike status that Longstreet had previously attributed to Lee has faded—the general is merely a mortal now, a flawed, short-sighted human being.
Excited, Pickett asks Longstreet how much time they have left. Longstreet hears a morbid overtone in the question but tells him the artillery will fire for an hour. This battle, in fact, will see the greatest concentration of artillery ever fired. Longstreet tiredly walks off by himself and sits with his head in his hands. He wants to resign but he can’t abandon Lee or his men, no matter how much he disagrees with Lee’s orders. “God help me,” he thinks, “I can’t even quit.”
Ironically, honor—as well as his lingering love for Lee— prevents Longstreet from resigning, an example of the very “honorable” foolishness he has decried earlier in the novel.